The New Literacy Studies:
a point of contact between literacy research and literacy work
by Guy Ewing
“New Literacy Studies” is a name given to a line of
research that has been developing in the last twenty
years or so. Most of this work is in the tradition of
ethnography, an approach to anthropological research
designed to learn about social and cultural behaviour
through unobtrusive, unstructured observation.
Psychologists and linguists, as well as anthropologists,
have been involved in this work. Some widely read
examples of this work, which I list at the end of this
article, are Heath (1983), Street (1984), Prinsloo and
Breier (1996) and Barton and Hamilton (1998).
To a literacy worker like myself, this is exciting
work, because it is research that a literacy worker can
relate to, read and discuss. A literacy worker can relate
to this research because, for the most part, its
methodology focuses on unstructured,
unfolding situations, not structured
experiments. This methodology respects
the integrity of social situations, creating
a picture of adult literacy learning
that we can all recognize. The
research is readable, because
it is about actual
learning situations. It can
be discussed because its
assumptions are familiar to
literacy workers, and
shared by many who work
in the literacy field. The two
main assumptions that
underlie this work are not
strange to the discourse of
literacy workers. The first
assumption is that literacy
practices are socially embedded,
and so cannot be understood in
isolation. The second shared assumption follows from the first: that the object of literacy studies
is “literacies” in their various social situations, not an
unrealized abstraction called “literacy”.
If literacy is a set of practices within a
social network, a community, then it
must be learned within a community.
That literacy practices are socially embedded is a
familiar, recurring theme in the discourse of literacy
workers. Here, in an article by Jean Connon Unda, is a
recent incarnation of this view.
Take, for example, an accident report
form. It is part of Canada’s Workers’
Compensation system. Being able to fill
out this form entails much more than
simply decoding the words on the page
and writing words in the blank spaces. In
fact, to really grasp the significance of the
accident report form, workers need to
know quite a bit about how the Workers’ Compensation system works. For example,
we need to know what specialized terms
mean within that system; what the
procedures and rules are, and the nature
of our rights and obligations. Only then
can we complete the form effectively and
gain access to our rights in the system. Our Times, August/September, 2001.
Recognizing the diversity of literacy
practices entails letting go of fixed
notions of good reading strategies and
bad reading strategies.
Similarly, the assumption of “literacies” is familiar to
literacy workers. This assumption gets validated by the
multiplicity of ways in which adult literacy learners
integrate written language into their lives. For some
learners, literacy means being able to work in an
office. For some, it means being able to write letters to
their children. For some, it means being able to sign
their names. Working with people who are discovering
how to integrate written language into their lives,
literacy workers will not be surprised by the idea that
literacy cannot be generally and abstractly defined.
So the New Literacy
Studies have given us research that literacy workers can relate to, read
and discuss. We can discuss this research among ourelves. Even
more exciting, we should be able to discuss this
research with the researchers themselves. There are
differences between how researchers and literacy
workers use language to talk about adult literacy
learning, and differences of purpose in talking about
adult literacy learning, but, given the methodology of
the New Literacy Studies, and assumptions that are
recognizable and sensible to literacy workers, it
should be possible to overcome these differences.
Given the real possibility of
literacy workers and New Literacy researchers, literacy
workers will be able to use the New Literacy research
to clarify and further develop models for literacy
work. New Literacy researchers will, in turn, benefit
from accounts of literacy learning by literacy workers
and from ideas by literacy workers about how the
New Literacy Studies might apply to their work.
I would like to engage in this
dialogue here by discussing models of literacy work that I think are
supported by the New Literacy Studies. I will discuss
three features that I think such models will have.
Models for literacy work that are supported by the New Literacy Studies
1) Bringing communities into programs
I think that literacy work supported by the New
Literacy Studies will ensure that literacy learners are
supported by a social network with its own uses of
written language. If literacy is a set of practices within
a social network, a community, then it must be
learned within a community. A literacy program must
be more than a place where one can learn the
technical skills required for using written language. It
must help literacy learners bring their communities
into the programs, so that the uses of written
language they are learning can be sustained by those
communities. If a learner comes from an immigrant
community, the cultural perspectives, daily realities
and uses of language within that community must be
welcome in the literacy program. If a learner comes
from a social housing project in Toronto, where he
has lived all his life, that reality must also be
welcome. What the New Literacy Studies tell us is
that bringing the realities of communities into
literacy programs is not just a matter of tolerance, it is
an essential condition for literacy learning.
The New Literacy Studies have given
literacy workers research that we can
relate to, read and discuss.
Because the environment in which I work, Toronto,
is a multicultural environment, learners bring a variety
of cultural perspectives and potential social networks to
any given literacy program or literacy class. To some
extent, literacy programs and literacy classes become
meeting places for cultures. They also become places
where communities are forged between people from
different cultures, based on the Canadian social
realities which they share. In the small group that I
facilitated at Parkdale Project Read in Toronto’s
Parkdale neighbourhood, we built our learning of
written language on discussions about issues of health
and housing, issues for the people in that group. The
writing and reading that the learners did grew out of
common understandings and common uses of
language that came from the communities of the
participants, but also through discussion in the small
group. The small group allowed itself to be congruent
with the communities of the learners, so that the uses
of written language that were being learned could be
supported by the realities of those communities. At the same time, the group developed its own
language and ways of talking about things, so
that it became part of the social network that
sustained each learner’s literacy learning. For
more detail about this group, see my paper
“Small Groups in the Big Picture”, which
is included in my bibliography.
This was not school in
the traditional sense,
but a meeting place
of communities that
was also forging
out of its diverse
In the literacy class that I taught in the Jane/Wilson
neighbourhood in Toronto, the communities were
different. The participants in the small group in
Parkdale were people from the Caribbean, displaced
Maritimers and people from Northern Ontario. In
Jane/Wilson, the students were mainly from Somalia,
Italy, South America, the Caribbean, West Africa and
Northern Ontario. The “class” was a place of creative
chaos. People talked with each other in their cultural
groups, then came together for boisterous arguments
about crime in the neighbourhood, war in the world
and how best to help children cope with Canadian
schools. The reading and writing that learners did
revolved around these common themes. This was not
school, in the traditional sense, but a meeting place of
communities that was also forging some common
understandings out of its diverse realities, and using
written language (as well as oral discussion) to do this.
Bringing the realities of communities
into programs is not just a matter of
tolerance, it is an essential condition
for literacy learning.
A visitor to either the small group in Parkdale or the
class in Jane/Wilson might have thought that we were
spending too much time talking, and that there was
not enough order and direction in what we did. But,
from the results, I know that the openness of both of
these learning environments allowed for congruence
between the learners’ lives in their communities and the
development of literacy practices, including the
most technical aspects of literacy practices, like spelling
and sounding out words. The learners’ achievements in
both of these learning environments were astounding.
Books were written, people took control of their health,
people became community activists, people got jobs,
and people went on to adult high school and
The New Literacy Studies not only
suggest some useful directions for
literacy work, they also invite questions,
challenges, and deeper analysis.
The New Literacy Studies provide an explanation
for the success of this approach. By being open to
communities, and by forging community alliances
within learning environments, the small group at
Parkdale and the class in Jane/Wilson facilitated the
learning of literacy practices that were congruent
with learners’ lives in their communities. This
allowed all of the wisdom and language of the
communities to support their developing literacy
practices. They were not just learning technical skills,
they were learning literacy practices with their own
social networks. These networks provided a
constant support, or scaffolding, for their efforts
as they struggled to master the technical aspects
of putting their ideas and their language into
A detailed analysis of how social
scaffolding might work is outlined in a
recent unpublished paper, “Literacy as
Local Practices and Social Relations”,
by Richard Darville of Carleton
University. The books listed at
the end of this article also
describe the variety of literacy
practices supported in
Ways with Words by
Shirley Brice Heath
describes the literacy
in one part of
southern United States: rural white people, rural black people,
and townspeople, both white and black. Literacy in
Theory and Practice by Brian Street describes two
literacies supported by one community in
northeastern Iran. The Social Uses of Literacy, edited by
Mastin Prinsloo and Mignonne Breier, presents studies
of literacies in South Africa. Local Literacies by David
Barton and Mary Hamilton describe the everyday
literacy practices of working class people of Lancaster,
in northern England.
There are many ways of bringing this scaffolding
into a literacy program. The point is not to have one
model for doing this, but to develop various models.
But the New Literacy Studies teach us that, if the
scaffolding is not in place, literacy learning will be
hard. There is a particularly poignant story in a paper
by Catherine Kell, “Literacy Practices in an Informal
Settlement in the Cape Peninsula”, in The Social Uses
of Literacy. Winnie Tsotso, a community activist who,
in spite of her limited ability to decode words, had
taught herself how to use written language to help
members of her community in complex interactions
with government agencies, decided to go back to
school. There she sat, in a night school classroom,
writing her name over and over again. The
community that had sustained her literacy learning
was gone in the classroom, and she was alone with
technical tasks that did not build on her community
experience, but which made her a child again.
Literacy need not be static.
Like individuals and their
communities, it can adapt and grow.
2) Encouraging people to invent literacy practices
A second feature of the kinds of literacy work
supported by the New Literacy Studies is that they
should encourage people to invent literacy practices.
Clearly, Winnie Tsotso was not decoding all of those
government forms in the standard way. She had
developed her own strategies for deriving meaning
from written language.
At various times, most adult literacy learners need
to do this. Some, like Winnie, have needs for
information that outstrip their ability to process
written information in the usual way, so they
develop methods of their own: for example, relying
on position on the page, initial letters, keywords.
Some have learning disabilities that will make it impossible for them to process written information
in standard ways. They also develop methods on their
own: tricks to make up for faulty visual memory,
ways of using technology, like computer text readers,
to support their use of written language. Many adult
literacy learners develop temporary strategies that
help them at particular points in their learning. For
example, it is common for learners who are starting
to learn how to sound out larger words to look for
“words within words”, small written words like can
and date that appear as written and spoken syllables
in larger words like candidate. Literacy workers often
encourage them in this practice.
They were not just learning technical skills, they were learning
literacy practices with their own social networks.
Several years ago, I was describing this practice of looking for “words
within words” to a reading expert. She was horrified that this practice
was being encouraged, on the grounds that this is not what skilled readers
do. I tried to explain that adult literacy learners develop many practices
along the way that may be non-functional for other readers, or that they will
find to be non-functional as their reading changes. But recognizing the diversity
of literacy practices, as the New Literacy Studies do, entails letting go of
fixed notions of good reading strategies and bad reading strategies. Winnie
Tsotso’s reading strategies gave her literacy, something that, when she
was sitting in night school learning standard practices, she temporarily lost.
If a practice supports a learner’s literacy needs and literacy learning
needs, it should be supported by literacy workers. Only when it becomes a bar
rier to further learning can we think of this practice as limiting.
(3) Helping learners to adapt and expand their literacy practices
A third feature of models of literacy work supported by the New Literacy Studies
is that they should help learners adapt and expand literacy practices. Literacy
need not be static; like individuals and their communities, they can adapt
and grow. Brian Street provides an example in Literacy in Theory and Practice.
Once people learn a particular literacy they have tools to learn
another. No literacy is limiting; all literacies are enabling.
He shows how merchants in northeastern Iran created new literacy practices
by adapting features of what he calls maktab literacy, the literacy
taught in religious schools, the maktab. In these schools, people
studied the Koran and commentaries on the Koran. People’s time in these
schools varied, and not everyone who attended the maktab learned to
read texts in their entirety.
“For some students their experience of the maktab may involve no more
than learning to recite by rote whole passages of the Koran, often without ‘reading’ in
the sense of ‘cracking the phonemic code’. They would not necessarily
be able to relate letters or clusters of letters to sounds if they encountered
them in new contexts. They might become so familiar with the appearance of
the book from which they had been taught passages that they would recognise
and recite sections according to such mnemonics as the position of the passage
on the page, the layout and style of the book and the use of headings . .
.” (p. 133)
The position and layout were particularly important in the texts, as the Koran
itself and the commentary on the Koran would be positioned differently on the
page, and laid out differently. Position and layout also helped users retrieve
particular passages as they thumbed through texts.
Building on the literacy practices supported by maktab literacy, merchants
developed formats for recording and formalizing commercial exchanges that used
position and layout to make information about quantities, prices, etc., clear
to farmers and merchants alike. In this way, they created a whole new set of
literacy practices that became essential to the economy of the area. Literacy
practices had been adapted. The literacy practices of individuals had expanded.
The society had changed.
The New Literacy Studies show us that once people learn a particular literacy
they have tools to learn another. No literacy is limiting; all literacies are
enabling. Like the people who had attended maktab, they have practices
that they can use to new purposes. For example, a person may learn spelling
and how to present ideas effectively by writing about her concerns about crime
in Jane/Wilson, and presenting her ideas to a literacy class. She may then
adapt those practices to writing business letters, and, more broadly, begin
acquiring business literacy. (Or perhaps, like a literacy learner I once met,
she may learn to write children’s books.) Once a literacy has been learned,
others can follow, and literacy workers can help learners grow through adaptation
and further learning.
How literacy workers can contribute to the New Literacy Studies
As literacy workers refine and develop models of literacy work, they will
encounter the stubborn details of what we mean by “literacies”:
how literacies are related to social networks in complex, multicultural settings;
how individual practices can expand and reshape the shared practices of a social
group; how a learner’s knowledge of literacy practices is structured
and restructured as new practices are learned; and how literacies combine and
overlap, in individuals and in communities. These are just some issues that
come to mind. The New Literacy Studies not only suggest some useful directions
for literacy work, they also invite questions, challenges, and deeper analysis.
These questions, challenges and deeper analysis can be fueled, in part, by
literacy workers as they try to understand how the assertions of the New Literacy
Studies apply to their daily work.
There have been other times when it seemed that literacy workers and literacy
researchers might work together, but these times did not seem as hopeful as
the present time. At the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the Festival
of Literacies has brought literacy workers and researchers together to learn
from each other, and has actually kept them talking for quite a long time now.
A national literacy journal, bringing together literacy workers and researchers,
is now a reality. It is a time of dialogue and mutual discovery, and the New
Literacy Studies provide a good point of contact.
Guy Ewing is Executive Director of the Metro Toronto Movement
for Literacy. He has worked in the literacy field for twenty years, mostly
as a front-line literacy worker. He is the author of Don’t Talk To
Me About Vowels and The Reason I Joined This Program, and has
a long-standing interest in the relationship between knowledge and action.
I would like to thank Richard Darville of Carleton University for
his stimulating work within the framework of the New Literacy Studies,
and for discussing this work with me. This paper was inspired, and
partly shaped by this discussion, as well as by a discussion at Pa
rkdale Project Read in Toronto about the New Literacy Studies, led
by Nancy Jackson of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
Thanks also to Jenny Horsman for her clear criticism and useful suggestions.
Barton, David, and Mary Hamilton (1998). Local Literacies: Reading
and Writing in One Community. London: Routledge.
Darville, Richard (2001). “Literacy as Local Practices and
Social Relations” . Manuscript, School of Linguistics and Applied
Language Studies, Carleton University.
Ewing, Guy (1992). “Small Groups in the Big Picture”.
RaPAL Bulletin No. 19.
Heath, Shirley Brice (1983). Ways with Words: Language, Life
and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge
Prinsloo, Mastin, and Mignonne Breier, eds., (1996). The Social
Uses of Literacy: Theory and Practice in Contemporary South Africa.
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Street, Brian V. (1984). Literacy in Theory and Practice.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Unda, Jean Connon (2001). “Reading the World: Labour’s
Vision of Literacy”. Our Times: August/September,